‘Extreme’ conspiracy killing America's evangelicals
US evangelical Christians led the charge against isolation measures to combat COVID-19. Now they're proclaiming any vaccine to be "the mark of the Beast".
The US "is experiencing the consequential wrath of God," Reverend Ralph Drollinger wrote in a Capitol Ministries Bible study. He was preaching to White House administrators and staff, blaming the pandemic on those with "a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality" as well as environmentalists and people with "depraved minds".
Two-thirds of US believers agree Trump's gospel teacher - at least at the level that god wants change, a new Associated Press poll finds. Evangelical Protestants strongly believe this to be the case, at 43 per cent. This compares to 28 per cent of Catholic and mainstream Protestants.
But that message is moving on.
Now even any potential vaccine for COVID-19 is being touted as an assault on Christianity itself.
But the COVID-19 virus is following its own playbook and it's reaping a deadly toll among faithful and heathen alike.
In the US, the pandemic has killed almost 90,000 and afflicted millions with economic hardship.
Pastor Ronnie Hampton, who led the New Vision Community Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, died of COVID-19 in March.
He had told his followers that the pandemic was god testing the faithful.
"This virus that is out now, look at what it's doing," he said in a Facebook broadcast before he contracted the virus. "It's shutting down everything, which means that the physical connection of Christians is being ripped apart. We're not able to fellowship … We're not able to break bread, sit down and eat with each other because Caesar is mandating how we conduct ourselves using the pretext of this virus to be able to conduct our lives and run our lives for us."
But his righteous assault went beyond pandemic prevention measures.
He was one of the first to take aim at the only viable escape route.
"They're gonna come up with a vaccine and … everybody is gonna have to take it … and inside of that vaccine there's going to be some type of electronic computer device that's gonna put some type of chip in you and maybe even have some mood, mind-altering circumstances," Hampton asserted. "And they're saying that the chip would be the mark of the beast."
This is a reference to the apocalyptic visions of the New Testament Book of Revelations. The "mark of the beast" is supposed to be a sign of submission to the antichrist. It's a prophecy previously applied to everything from smartphones to bar codes.
But Hampton's idea has taken root. Extremist evangelical pastors and far-right pundits are preaching his word. It's reaching a broad audience through social media platforms such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.
And believers are getting increasingly vocal about it.
SWORD OF THE WORD
Hampton is just one of dozens of US religious leaders to fall to COVID-19.
Another example is Bishop Gerald Glenn, pastor of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia. He had insisted that "God is larger than his dreaded virus". He vowed he would continue to preach - in person - "unless I'm in jail or the hospital".
On March 15, he held a service attended by some 200 parishioners. By April 14, he was dead.
Many of his flock were also seriously ill.
"While they (his congregation) are mourning the heartbreaking earthly absence of their family patriarch & spiritual father, they also have family members who are struggling to survive this dreaded pandemic," a church statement read.
Other church leaders have been taking up the fight to defend their right to lead their followers.
Louisiana megachurch pastor Tony Spell was arrested for reversing a bus full of congregation members at a protester attempting to highlight his defiance of mass-gathering bans. Spell, who claims to have healed HIV through prayer, had insisted services at his Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge continue as usual. "This is the proudest day of my life to be persecuted for the faith," he wrote after his arrest.
"We're a Pentecostal denomination, and when we gather and pray, the Holy Ghost comes in the midst. There are healings, signs, wonders, some things done together in the church that can't be done in a live stream," Spell said.
His lawyer, who attended two of the offending services, was forced to delay court proceedings when hospitalised with COVID-19.
SHIELD OF FAITH
Conservative Christian churches across the world have been insisting the "blood of Jesus" will protect their communities. In Australia, one such example was Margaret Court's Life Church.
An Associated Press survey found 43 per cent of evangelicals say they strongly believed god would protect them from the virus. A further 30 per cent said they believed this "somewhat".
When it came to Catholics and Protestants, it was more a 50-50 split between those who believed god would intervene to keep them safe and those who did not.
Holy immunity is a message many parishes are pushing.
Evangelical churches in the US - and Australia - have been citing Psalm 91 as gospel proof of god's protection.
Psalm 91, verses 5-7:
5 "You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you."
But that interpretation doesn't seem to be working.
One report on US Pentecostal pastors has found more than 30 have died as a result of the virus. Many led crowded church sermons in defiance of government appeals to close their doors. The toll among other denominations is yet to be determined. But parishes that defied lockdown orders over Easter are featuring prominently among recent hotspot reports.
Legal battles are being fought out across the US, both to challenge the validity of limiting gatherings under the First Amendment (freedom of expression). Some churches are suing for financial loss.
The US is starkly divided on religious and political grounds.
According to the United States Studies Centre (USSC), only 19 per cent of Republicans are very or extremely worried about contracting the virus, compared to 48 per cent of Democrats. When it comes to trusting scientific and medical experts, Democrats register 85 per cent support, and Republicans only 37 per cent.
No such dramatic divide exists within Australia, they found.
"These deep partisan divisions are arguably both a symptom and cause of America's struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic," the USSC report reads.
Last month, a federal court in Kansas issued a temporary restraining against the governor's order placing a limit of 10 people services. Nine infection clusters have since been linked to church parishes.
A federal court judge in California rejected an appeal by three churches where they stated in-person sermons were "commanded by scripture", and that they were required to "lay hands on people and pray for them". But one Sacramento-area church had already been identified as the source of more than 70 infections.
And that's just a sample.
"They love the idea that they're being oppressed and that they're being persecuted," assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University Ryan Burge told YahooNews, saying evangelicals were "on the lookout for times when the government sort of oversteps its bounds and starts to infringe upon religion."
Senior Lecturer Robyn Whitaker of the University of Divinity told The Conversation that much of the resistance to medical and government anti-pandemic measures were "rooted in a prosperity theology that naively claims God will protect and bless the faithful (usually financially)".
"This distrust is because scientific theories, such as evolution, are mutually exclusive to a literal reading of the creation stories in the Bible, particularly Genesis, and are therefore seen as a threat or in conflict with faith."
Professor of religious studies at Yale University Kathryn Lofton told AP that thinking the pandemic was a message from god was "fear that if we don't change, this misery will continue".
"When people get asked about God, they often interpret it immediately as power," Lofton says. "And they answer the question saying, 'Here's where the power is to change the thing I experience'."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as 'Extreme' conspiracy killing US 'faithful'